Interview. 'There is a very clear and precise intention to overturn the historical truth, to rewrite the history of the Republic. It’s the intention to erase anti-fascism as the foundation of the new Italy.'

Aldo Tortorella: ‘Anti-fascism is a set of positive ideals for the deep transformation of society’

Aldo Tortorella, who turns 97 this year, with an extraordinary past as a partisan, communist leader, and editor of L’Unità, spoke by video on Tuesday, April 25, at the rally in Milan’s Piazza Duomo.

Aldo, I found in the archives the letter you wrote to il manifesto in support of the great April 25 march that the paper started in 1994. Thirty anniversaries of April 25 have passed since then, and somehow a cycle is coming to an end: it started with Berlusconi’s victory, it’s coming back full circle today with an openly revisionist right wing in power. If it was bad then, it’s worse now.

There has been a distancing from the needs and expectations of the least protected part of society on the part of the progressive forces, and that is what has favored the drift, first populist and then directed towards the ideologies and demagoguery of an extreme right wing. The latter has always been expert at stoking ancestral fears and prejudices: fear of someone who is different because of their skin color and for other reasons: cultural or religious origins, choices in their personal and sexual relationships. The idea has become established that center-left forces are now solely devoted to defending the interests of the wealthy classes – think of the abolition of Article 18 of the labor law on just cause for dismissals. So this has come full circle. Of course, there is something paradoxical about it: the one who initiated this political process that shifted the popular orientations was one of the richest men in the country, with a vast fortune accumulated in ways that are being investigated by the judiciary. Now the drift is continuing, moving towards forces that operate with great skill in demagoguery, but in the service of maintaining the given social hierarchies.

Do you see an ability to react at the grassroots level that is similar to that of 1994?

It is different today because it has been entrusted to new generations. In ’94, there still were – I don’t want to say the remnants, but the energies and mentalities formed during times of leftist resurgence and advancement, during the 1970s. The new generations have different interests and different experiences. I believe that the ability to react will be present if forms of understanding are reached on the part of all democratic and anti-fascist forces, and at the same time if the anxieties and concerns of the new generations can be recognized and taken up, starting with the environmental issue and the labor situation.

It is a situation of precariousness, shamefully low wages, and the inability to have their skills recognized and valued. Many young graduates are forced to go abroad to find suitable positions. And this leads to difficulty in building stable relationships, it stops one from starting a family, if they want one. This is where commitment and the capacity for political and cultural initiative must make the difference: spontaneous protest or rebellion require credible goals. It was true on April 25, 1994, and it is true today. It is essential to be able to interpret the new sentiments that are being fought over in the confrontation with the right, and the ability to express, correctly and explicitly, a strong and credible will for peace will be decisive.

In your opinion, can La Russa’s claims about the Via Rasella attack be simply the result of partisan ignorance? After all, these are notions that have always been present in neo-fascist historical literature.

Of course, there is this ignorance, which that individual confessed to when making their belated apology. But even if it were only partisan ignorance, it would be a serious matter for a person who holds such a high democratic office, the second after that of the Presidency of the Republic, a role that should be one of guarantor. But it is not just ignorance of history, which is in itself unprecedented – there’s more to it than that.

Could there be a specific strategy behind these statements? What is it?

There is a very clear and precise intention to overturn the historical truth, to rewrite the history of the Republic. It’s the intention to erase anti-fascism as the foundation of the new Italy. There was also a mistake on our part, I mean on the part of the anti-fascist movement that became divided in mid-1947. We wanted reconciliation in Italy, which was a worthy goal, but it was a mistake not to base it on a campaign of popular enlightenment about Fascism as a criminal regime, as was done with Nazism in Germany, and not only about anti-Semitic racism and the genocide of the Jewish people.

Out of twenty years of tyranny, ten had featured wars of aggression: Ethiopia, Spain, then Greece, France, Yugoslavia, the USSR: entire generations sent to their deaths for unjust causes. What was needed was to make the aberrant ideological foundations of Fascism very clear and to punish those who had been guilty of horrendous crimes. However, the amnesty sought by a united anti-fascist government and enacted by Togliatti was applied by judges that were themselves compromised in relation to Fascism. For the same acts of war, Fascist leaders were acquitted as “regular” soldiers, while partisans were sentenced almost as gang members.

Partisans were sentenced to thousands of years in jail. There is now ample documentation of this disgrace. It should also be said that in those times, the center parties did not want partisan fighters to be given the same status as regular army groups. This criminalization of the partisan movement and anti-fascism lasted for more than a decade, accompanied by the violent and bloody repression of workers’ and peasants’ popular uprisings. The result was that Fascists were punished at the bottom and not at the top, and the clearing of the waters that was needed did not take place.

The Senate president also said that “it is well known that red anti-fascists did not want a free Italy, because they had the myth of communist Russia.” I’m asking you, who were a young red partisan: did you want a free Italy or not? 

This was another one of the historical falsifications for which this individual is acting as a mouthpiece. In this case, it’s against the Garibaldi groups that were less than half of the fighting formations. And they were not all made up of Communists, who were often in leadership positions, but flanked by members of other leftist forces as well and former army officers. They were all volunteers, loyal to the positions of the National Liberation Committee and their command, represented first and foremost by Luigi Longo. The Communists’ watchword was the same as Togliatti’s, advocating for the path of “progressive democracy” and no longer that of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

So this is a lie. I, as a “red” partisan, back then a precocious university student, can testify that I learned the basic concepts of democracy from my then-commander, founder and leader of the Youth Front for National Independence and Freedom, another independent part of the Resistance: Eugenio Curiel, a member of the leadership of the underground PCI, author of important essays on “progressive democracy.” He was a gifted physicist as well as philosophically trained. He was expelled from the university because he was Jewish and murdered in ’45 in Milan by the black shirted brigades.

Have you heard this idea coming from La Russa before? Isn’t it the same one that came after the breakdown of national unity from 1948 onward?

Certainly, it’s the same thesis that was being pushed and turned into propaganda back then. It was a propaganda tool to create a division among the ranks of anti-fascism and lead to anti-partisan persecution.

Prime Minister Meloni wanted to commemorate the martyrs of the Fosse Ardeatine as merely “Italians.” In your opinion, is it more difficult for her to accept that the victims were anti-fascists or that some Italians were on the side of the murderers?

Of course, I think certain beliefs of hers stem from her political-ideological origins that she was never willing to change. Again, this might be guilty ignorance, but it might also be calculation: the intention to make people forget the sins of Italian fascists who were accomplices of the Nazis and avoid commemorating the Resistance. But this is a real insult to almost all of those martyrs. The victims of the reprisal at the Fosse Ardeatine who were actually “guilty only of being Italian” were the few prisoners for common crimes who were taken from prison to reach the number set for the massacre.

All others among the 335 were “guilty” either of being Jews, killed due to racism, or of being members of the resistance, military officers, belonging to political forces opposed to Fascism such as Action Party, Red Flag, PCI, Psiup, Republicans, Christian Democrats, anti-regime Freemasons – all murdered for being resisters, partisans, anti-fascists. They were murdered by German Nazis aided by Italian Fascists. This line by the Prime Minister should also be interpreted in the context of the tendency of this right wing to impose a dangerous form of “restoration” from above.

In your opinion, was the mayor of Marzabotto right to say that she didn’t want La Russa at the ceremony? 

In my opinion, she did exactly the right thing.

I would like to ask you whether you ever feared, in the years immediately following the Liberation, that the memory of the evil deeds and motives of that time would be lost to such a great extent.

I am so old that I was able to witness the fact that a few years after the Liberation, the demonization of the Resistance that we mentioned before had already begun. And the loss of the memory and awareness of the value of that historical episode, which had restored, at least in part, the dignity of our country, which had emerged defeated and half-destroyed from the war waged by Mussolini. What is happening today has very clear roots. Of course, there is also the fact that when it comes to the defense of anti-fascism – which, after all, means defense of the Constitution – the democratic forces have not been as consistent as they needed to be. Certainly, the “restoration” side is in government today and threatens to strengthen its hold on power because the fight against the roots of reactionary positions has been lacking or entirely absent.

Does the left bear any responsibility for all this? What is it? 

It bears the very great responsibility of having accepted to limit anti-fascism exclusively to the value of the struggle against dictatorship – which is certainly essential. Whereas anti-fascism has been, and should succeed in becoming again, a set of positive ideals for the deep transformation of society, as the Constitution itself indicates. In this, it should also rediscover its origins: the Constitution was born from the anti-fascist forces, which certainly did not intend to restore the old pre-Fascist liberal democracy.

What they wanted was an advanced democracy, able to overcome social injustices, guaranteeing culture and decent living conditions for everyone. A republic “founded on labor,” and therefore not on capital, as mentioned in the first article of the Constitution. Article 3 enshrines the principle of substantive as well as formal democracy. We don’t know how the world might have turned out if a policy of peaceful coexistence and democratization had continued in the time of Kennedy and Khrushchev. The American president was assassinated, as was his brother Bob later, and Khrushchev was ousted.

The government is pushing, and will do so more and more, for a top-down transformation of the institutions, for presidentialism. What is the relationship between this idea of constitutional reform and the attempt to dismantle the historical foundations of the Republic? 

It’s a cause-and-effect relationship. If the nonsensical thesis that the Constitution is not an expression of the positive values of anti-fascism becomes established, a reactionary adventure on the Orban or Erdogan model would be made much easier.

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